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Under The Radar: Santi Aldama's unlikely path to NBA success

Grizzlies big man Santi Aldama is showing he can be a valuable piece of a winning team in his 2nd NBA season.

Santi Aldama - Memphis Grizzlies

Santi Aldama is becoming a valuable part of the Memphis Grizzlies’ rotation in just his second year in the NBA.

Santi Aldama’s journey to the NBA began in Las Palmas, a Spanish city in the Canary Islands, about 90 miles off the coast of Morocco. It was in this tropical island roughly the size of Maryland that a young Aldama first picked up a basketball.

His father and uncle both played professional basketball when Santi was young. His father, a 7-footer, even played for the Spanish National team and faced the famed U.S. Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics.

“[We] had that basketball gene,” Aldama said.

Like any boy, Santi Aldama wanted to be like his dad. At age three, he remembers playing on a mini-hoop, and he was always begging his father to play with the older kids. When he grew into a standard-sized hoop, Aldama’s father and uncle were instrumental in his development.

They pushed him to be great … but also let him make mistakes. “They were just happy to see me enjoy the game,” he said.

Aldama also drew inspiration from the Spanish national team, whom he hopes to play for one day. He always looked up to Pau Gasol, one of the all-time great Spanish centers, and his Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant.

“That was when I was really like, ‘Wow, I want to play in the NBA one day.’”

As Aldama’s career at Canterbury Basketball Academy came to a close, he had a decision to make. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Many of the Spanish greats past and present — names like Pau and Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio and Willy and Juancho Hernangomez — all played professionally in Spain before making the transition to the NBA.

But Aldama took the road less traveled.

Santi Aldama played 2 seasons at Loyola University in Maryland before going to the NBA.

He had a close relationship with the Loyola University (Maryland) assistant basketball coach Ivo Simovic, and he decided to visit the school. After talking to Simovic and coach Tavaras Hardy during the visit, he realized Loyola was where he wanted to be.

The NBA wasn’t on Aldama’s mind when he went to Loyola and only two players — Mike Morrison in 1989 and Andy O’Donnell in 1950 — made it to the NBA from there. In fact, not many players from the Patriot League for that matter make it to the NBA. Aldama just had fun playing the game, and he was focused on working hard to be the best player on the court.

Simovic saw Aldama’s potential and believed in his ability. “He was the first guy that ever mentioned the NBA to me,” Aldama said. “He said, ‘I believe you can be an NBA player in two years.’ Obviously, I laughed.”

In Aldama’s second season at Loyola in 2020-21, he averaged 21.2 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game, one of the best individual Patriot League single-seasons ever. The school made history, reaching its first Patriot League championship game (where it lost to Colgate). After that season, Aldama realized he belonged in the NBA.

He was selected No. 30 in the 2021 draft by the Utah Jazz, but was dealt to the Grizzlies a month later. While experts didn’t have Aldama even being picked, he wasn’t concerned with the noise.

“I was relaxed because I knew I had put the work in,” he said. “I was just happy to hear my name called.”

The transition from college to the NBA was tough for Aldama. He played 16 games for the Memphis Hustle, the Grizzlies’ NBA G League affiliate, which he saw as an opportunity to grow. One season later, he’s a key rotation player for the parent club.

After putting up 4.1 points per game and 2.7 rebounds per game in 11.3 minutes per game last season, those numbers have all skyrocketed in 2022-23. He’s averaging 9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.2 apg and 22 mpg while shooting 48.9% overall and 38.2% on 3-pointers.

Early in the season, he started 14 of the Grizzlies’ first 17 games while Jaren Jackson Jr. mended from offseason foot surgery. Aldama watched a lot of film in the offseason to find out where his shots could come from and this season, his confidence has soared.

Santi Aldama dropping 18 points on opening night vs. the Knicks.

Aldama’s size and wingspan allow him to block shots at the rim and dunk with ease and, since he grew up playing point guard before his growth spurt, he is crafty at getting to the rim, getting open and delivering timely (and deft) passes.

As a key part of the Grizzlies — the NBA’s fifth-youngest team — Aldama has enjoyed how his creative-yet-stable playmaking fits into the group’s style of play.

“I think we’re one of the most fun teams to watch, and for sure the most fun team to play for,” he said.

Santi Aldama

Santi Aldama throws down a dunk against the Cleveland Cavaliers in January.

While the Grizzlies’ youth, flair and swagger may upset some in and around the NBA, Aldama knows big things are expected in Memphis this season.

“I feel like sometimes we don’t get the credit we deserve,” Aldama said. “We’re not asking for [it], but I think we’ve demonstrated we’re a very capable team. It’s a different season this year. Last year we were the hunters, now we’re the hunted.”

After a run to the 2022 West semifinals and an exciting series with the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors, Aldama and the Grizzlies aren’t about to be taken lightly. At 31-17, Memphis has often traded ownership of the No. 1 spot in the West with Denver. To be sure, the Grizzlies have the look of a contender and Aldama know that come playoff time, he and his team can survive in an underdog-type role.

“We know that when we play our best basketball, we can beat anybody,” he said. “We’re just going to focus on ourselves and do our talking on the court.”